The Civil War Surgeon’s Educated Colt Revolver
By Joel Kolander
There are times when you can look at a gun and know it has a story or two to tell. Guns that have earned their own name increase this likelihood exponentially. Take some famous examples, such as “The Hand of God” in the movie 3:10 to Yuma or Davy Crockett’s “Old Betsy.” Of course, this practice of naming weapons is not new, with references extending as far back as Thor’s hammer Mjölnir and Beowulf’s sword Naegling. Even in antiquity folks had a fondness for high-performing weapons that had helped them through some tight spots.
The cased and silver plated Colt 1849 Pocket of this article seemed destined to offer such services. Its silver finish beckons to the viewer – seldom does a revolver that can view its sesquicentennial in the rear view mirror possess such a lustre. Just like a bass tracking down a spinner bait, the shiny parts get the attention and draw you in, but this gun sets the hook deep when collectors see the numerous inscriptions on the prized revolver.There are times when you can look at a gun and know it has a story or two to tell. Guns that have earned their own name increase this likelihood exponentially. Take some famous examples, such as “The Hand of God” in the movie 3:10 to Yuma or Davy Crockett’s “Old Betsy.” Of course, this practice of naming weapons is not new, with references extending as far back as Thor’s hammer Mjölnir and Beowulf’s sword Naegling. Even in antiquity folks had a fondness for high-performing weapons that had gotten them through some tight spots.
A simple glance at the partitioned, red velvet lined, rosewood case gives quite a bit of precursory information. A small brass plaque affixed to its lid reads, “Surgeon Hurd, 5th Regt. M.V.M.” Research of that name yields results to a Dr. Samuel H. Hurd, who the U.S. National Parks Service database reveals as a surgeon serving during the Civil War with the 5th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia from May 1 to August 1, 1861. He participated in the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, the first major land battle of that great conflict.
It’s a well-documented part of the historical record that on February 4, 1864 Colt’s East Armory burned to the ground, even if the origins of the blaze are still a source of a debate. The fire also spread across a covered bridge to the office that was also destroyed. It was in this tragic event that most of the Colt records were lost forever, and it is a very rare Colt that will have a Colt factory letter prior to that great inferno that dates its provenance. That said, it is known for a fact that this particular Colt model 1849 pocket revolver was given to Dr. Hurd on April 29th, 1861. We know this, not by any factory letter, but via the handwritten letter shown below that accompanies the gun to this day. It reads,
The Class of ’52 desirous of showing their appreciation of your courage and patriotism in thus nobly and disinterestedly giving up ‘Home’, to offer your services to your Country, hereby transmit to you this revolver, which we hope will report favorably for the safety of our classmate and friend.
In behalf of the Class of ’52,
Howard P. Arnold”
This sentiment is again repeated on the right barrel flat, shown below.
However, this is the point where this revolver diverges from the the typical ornamented presentation firearm and truly becomes a unique gift – something that even today has a certain ruggedness that inspires respect. First, the left barrel flat bears the simple inscription “Placebo.” Now whether that is the Colt revolver’s name, or simply what it dispatches, is up for debate, but in either case it’s a serious dose of old world cool, especially when you consider the definition of a placebo is “an ineffectual treatment that will often have a perceived or actual improvement in their condition.” The fact that the lead shot looks like little pills doesn’t hurt either. Time to administer some placebos.
The second interesting inscription is located on the backstrap of the revolver, which reads, “Multa Manu Medica.” In a day when one’s education, especially a Harvard education, would have certainly involved reading a lot of classic literature and the study of Latin, it should come as no surprise that the phrase appears in the epic Latin poem The Aenid by Virgil.
It occurs in the second half of The Aenid, when the Trojan hero Aeneas returns to camp after being wounded in battle. Dripping blood and leaning heavily on his spear, he stumbles into camp with the tip of a spear lodged in his body, unable to pull it out himself he begs nearby men to cut the wound larger so that the barbed spear head can be removed and he may return to battle. A physician placed herbs on his wound, which dulled his pain, stopped the bleeding, caused the spear head to be removed easily, and returned Aeneas’ strength to him as the war draws ever nearer and darts fall thick into the camps wounding and killing men all around him. What better section of the epic poem to reference than that of an effective wartime doctor?
Referencing a physician in this passage is the Latin phrase “multa manu medica,” which translates literally as “fine (or great) healing hand.” For this Colt, “The Healing Hand” is a non-literal translation that fits perfectly. Not only is the inscription placed where Dr. Hurd’s hand would have actually rested, but to think of the gun being named “The Healing Hand” and distributing lead placebos is, for lack of better words, completely bad-to-the-bone.
Little else is known of Dr. Hurd, other than the date of his death which a medical journal of the day confirms as February 5, 1897, in Atlantic City, NJ, at the age of 66.
For a surgeon serving his country, could there be a more perfect gift? For firearms collectors today, seldom do guns come with such a “cool” factor as this little revolver. Its tough talking inscriptions may require a Harvard education to understand the finer nuances, but “The Healing Hand” and “Placebo” need no explanation. The high condition of this Colt rightfully earns the attention of gun collectors and Colt aficionados, but the direct link to its origins and specific Civil War veteran give it appeal to history nuts as well as Civil War collectors. It’s a beautiful Colt, an awesome gift, and available in our 2016 December Premiere Firearms Auction.